Fringe of the Garment

by Jessica Hickey (c. 2010)
10 February 2010

“You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
The darkness of each endless fall,
The shimmering light of each ascent.

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
As though untouched.
But You take pleasure in the faces who know they thirst.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke, “Du siehst, ich will viel“)

"It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the find the place where all the beauty came from."
(C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces)

“As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her haemorrhage stopped. Then Jesus asked, ‘Who touched me?’ When all denied it, Peter said, ‘Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.’ But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.’ When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’” (Luke 8: 42-48)

“I noticed that power had gone out from Me." When I think on these words of Jesus from St. Luke’s Gospel, such a world of meaning seems to lie behind them. It seems to me one of the most revealing things the Savior ever said. Two points in particular stand out for me.

The first concerns what we might call the disposition of Jesus, His will in relation to us as it is demonstrated in the story. His desire to heal and to save by love must have emanated from Him at every moment, strong enough to preclude the necessity of any other particular act of the will. He exercised no restraint over His will to love. It flowed out where it would, wherever it could find a conduit. All that was needed to discharge this power was the presence of a soul who also knew desire, the desire to be healed and saved by love.

This leads to my second point of reflection, and that is, how did she know? We are told that the woman suffering a hemorrhage had for twelve years sought all the help that medicine could offer, until her resources were exhausted. It is not difficult to see why she would seek out Jesus, who had been known to open the eyes of the blind, cast out demons, and heal the paralytics and lepers. But in these instances, there was always an interchange, a conversation, a direct action or command: “Take up your mat and walk."

Here, however, there was to be no request, no words spoken. How did the woman know that just the proximity of Jesus, the tentative hand laid momentarily on the fringe of His garment, would be enough? How did she know that there was no need even to ask?

I do not really know the answer to this question. It is plain that the glory and divine power of Christ must have been cloaked before others; only Peter, James and John were granted the vision of His Transfiguration, when He allowed His true nature to become more visible to them upon Mount Tabor. Yet, it also seems that those who longed genuinely to know Christ and His will--such as this woman, for whom the fringe of His garment sufficed--were also given to see the truth.

Heart speaks to heart, said St. Francis de Sales. And Teresa of Avila assured her Carmelite sisters, “In the measure in which you desire Him, you will find Him.” The woman spoken of in this Gospel shows us that this phenomenon of human desire is not just a mechanism for searching. Our desire is itself a response to a greater desire; we may well say, an infinite desire. St. Augustine, whose symbol is the heart engulfed with flame, shows us clearly that the desire which we feel is the reciprocation, the reply to another heart, One Which is yet more aflame:

"You called and shouted, and burst my deafness.
You gleamed and shone upon me, and chased away my blindness.
You breathed fragrant airs on me, and I held back my breath,
But now I pant for you.
I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst for You.
You touched me, and now I yearn for your peace."

The poet Rilke, quoted earlier, remarks:

“So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
As though untouched.”

I do not believe, however, that any are truly untouched. Desire--however often it be suppressed, abused, ignored, or diverted--is in the nature of every rational soul. C.S. Lewis devotes much of his famous work Surprised by Joy to expressing how, from our babyhood, unexpected things arouse in us a pang of wonder and longing which is the first hallmark of divine desire. For the child Lewis, it was a miniature garden which he made upon the lid of a biscuit-tin--a funny, homely, earthly thing, but a genuine experience of beauty which rooted in him a desire for its Source.

Everywhere, the human experience teaches us of this inexplicable desire. Reading to my daughter a few weeks ago, I came upon the following from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, an episode in which the Ingalls family witnesses the migration of the Osage Indians:

“More and more and more ponies passed, and more children, and more babies on their mothers’ backs, and more babies in baskets on the ponies’ sides. Then came a mother riding, with a baby in a basket on each side of her pony.

Laura looked straight into the bright eyes of the little baby nearer her. Only its small head showed above the basket’s rim. Its hair was as black as a crow and its eyes were black as a night when no stars shine.

Those black eyes looked deep into Laura’s eyes and she looked deep down into the blackness of the little baby’s eyes, and she wanted that one little baby.

‘Pa,’ she said, ‘get me that little Indian baby!’

‘Hush, Laura!’ Pa told her sternly.

The little baby was going by. Its head turned and its eyes kept looking into Laura’s eyes.

‘Oh, I want it! I want it!” Laura begged. The baby was going farther and father away, but it did not stop looking back at Laura. ‘It wants to stay with me,’ Laura begged. ‘Please, Pa, please!

‘Hush, Laura, Pa said. ‘The Indian woman wants to keep her baby.’

‘Oh, Pa!’ Laura pleaded, and then she began to cry. It was shameful, but she couldn’t help it. The little Indian baby was gone. She knew she would never see it any more.
Ma said she had never heard of such a thing . . . “Why on earth do you want an Indian baby, of all things?’ Ma asked her.
‘Its eyes are so black,’ Laura sobbed. She could not say what she meant.”

For all who long, who hunger & thirst, we may ask the grace which was bestowed long ago on that woman--a tired and weakened woman who unerringly laid her hand upon the hem of God's garment. Where are they to go, those who today wish to do the same?

Last Sunday, the first reading described a vision of Isaiah: "I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple."

Within the house of God, His garment is spread wide, and no barriers exist save those which we erect ourselves. Here there is no need even to ask for help, for heart speaks to heart. To be present with desire is enough.



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